Teaching through example: Zootopia

Plot/synopsis:

Zootopia is about go-getter bunny Judy Hopps, who defies her family’s wishes and fulfills her dream of becoming a police officer in the city of Zootopia. Only problem is: nobody takes this tiny bunny seriously, and she’s delegated to meter maid duties. She gets interested in the case of missing animals across the city and is determined to find an answer, even if at the expense of her job.

Even from the trailer, it was obvious that this would be a metaphor for females breaking the glass ceiling and working extra hard to prove themselves. The writers chose to make Judy a bunny: an innocent, small, traditionally-helpless creature that represents the stereotypes associated with the feminine. The rest of her fellow police officers are typical predators, or at least large formidable prey like her bison chief. Nobody expects this bunny to succeed.

That makes her all the more eager to prove herself. “Anybody can be anything” is this bunny’s attitude, and she lives it to the fullest. She is truly a positive role model for the children going to see this film.

What’s most important–besides the delightful humor, artful design, and excellent voice acting–are the overriding themes of racism and sexism leading to a frightening world. We see the sexism through Judy’s eyes, in her pursuit of her dreams. We see the racism between predators and prey, and especially when stereotyping a species (or ethnicity.) Our other main character is Nick Wilde, a fox, who is labeled as shifty and untrustworthy because of his species.

Judy proves herself better than most by not assuming the worst of Nick the fox. In fact, she rolls her eyes at her parents offering her “fox repellant” and sticks up for Nick in an ice cream shop that tries to deny him service.

There will be somebody, somewhere out there, that thinks this movie is preachy, and that it didn’t need to be made. I would disagree with that hypothetical person. This movie is important, and it shows themes that are integral to helping kids understand at an early age that just because someone is different from them, doesn’t mean they are bad.

Every generation has its teaching models like this.

Examples:

Ferngully (1992): A boy named Zak is brought down to fairy size to see the plight of the fairies when a logging company destroys their home. It’s been like, 20 years since I’ve seen this, but I figure it was as good an early example as any.

Doug (1991–1994): Hey 90’s kids, remember this Nick cartoon series? The characters were varying shades, from beige to purple to blue. These colors were never mentioned, and the stories were average woes befalling the preteen and teenager.

Cats Don’t Dance (1997): A movie that played heavily on themes of disclusion and racism, set in ’30s Hollywood. The animals were the minority figure. They were show people, but never the star. Just look at Miss Dimple’s infuriating golden locks and psycho stare and tell me she doesn’t represent institutionalized racism.

Milestone Comics and Static Shock (2000–2004): Milestone Comics was a company founded in 1993 whose titles were published by DC, and notably was more conscious of promoting minority superheroes. This eventually led to the creation of a cartoon series, Static Shock. The cartoon centered around a teenager named Virgil Hawkins who witnesses a gang war and through an accident ends up with superpowers. This show was an excellent balance between different races, and the traditional “love interest” girls were as smart and capable as the guys.

Judy-Hopps-in-Zootopia

Judy Hopps. Go get ’em, Tiger. Or um…bunny.

Why bother?

Why bother showing race issues through children’s media? I am so glad you asked, hypothetical reader.

I think we need this gentle reminder here and there that there are all different kinds of people out there,  and the world is simply a better place with inclusion and variety. Films, TV shows, and even printed media is so full of white and male representation as to think of it as the baseline for normal. That’s a problem.

Unfortunately, children absorb a lot of what they see and experience. If they keep seeing action movies with buff, white male protagonists, they can’t imagine women or minorities being the hero. If they see one “token” minority character who is present to take the brunt of the jokes, they might start thinking it’s fine to make fun of the different kid at school. Kids learn by example. Where parents leave gaps, the world fills it in. We just want to be sure they’re filling it in with the right stuff.

If we need to teach such lessons through cartoon animals, then so be it.

Spoilery Section:

This is the review section. Here there be spoilers. You have been warned.

This film plays on expectations, as much for the kids’ sake as for adults. Predators vs. prey is not always clear cut. In fact, SUPER DUPER SPOILER ALERT……. it’s the prey that is the villain (no doubt a fear response against a perceived threat from predators). There’s a lot of smart political, socioeconomics at play here. I’d liken it to how some countries feud with others in anticipation of an attack, thereby creating the problem to begin with, but I don’t want to get political here.

There are a few minor missteps with the racism theme that I think go a bit too far. One is where Clawhauser calls Judy a cute bunny, and she gets all uncomfortable and says how only bunnies can call each other cute. Then later, when Nick is playing with the Assistant Mayor’s hair/wool, Judy freaks out and tells him, “You can’t touch a sheep’s wool!” These are both real-world examples of complicated race-tensions that felt a little awkward in this movie. It could have been accomplished otherwise. Maybe someone else wouldn’t think so. I’d need a second opinion.

What might seem like a misstep (but is actually an integral plot point and teaching tool) is after Officer Hopps has solved the case, she says things that are taken out of context in a press conference. She infers that predators are naturally prone to becoming “savage” (aka dangerous), and although she is just repeating information another character told her about how the animals were going crazy, she says the wrong thing to a crowd of fearful reporters who all happen to be prey animals. Good intentions but poor execution lead to Judy accidentally starting an extreme racist reaction to predators in general. One of her buddies even loses his position on the police force because “nobody wants to see a predator when they walk into the ZPD.”

These moments echo so powerfully the irrational fears against minorities that are the root of the problem. Judy only realizes belatedly how her words were taken to the extreme, and resigns in protest.

Zootopia was such a fantastic movie that doesn’t have to talk down to kids to be enjoyable. If you haven’t gotten a chance yet, I suggest you go see it yourself.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s